History and Material Culture (book review)

For reasons explained previously, I want to put this book in front of you.1 I first became aware of this when teaching my class on material culture for historians a while back but it wasn’t then out, and the inspection copy didn’t turn up till some weeks later. I’ve now made time to read it and am glad I did, so I thought I’d explain why.

Cover of Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture

Cover of Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture

The book is one of a series Routledge are developing to try and make available some methodological textbooks for students that teach by example, without skimping on the theory.2 This is a hard balance to strike, and not all the authors that Karen Harvey gathers in this volume get it quite correct to this reviewer’s mind, but the overall success is remarkable and while a couple of the contributing papers serve mainly to make the Industrial Revolution period quite interesting, most of them make the objects with which they are primarily concerned make much large points not just about their periods but about how historians approach their evidence.

Harvey’s introduction is the place where these agendas are most clearly set out, and is a particularly pellucid explanation of the values of alternative evidence that cannot easily be summarised: honestly, I recommend that you read it.3 It ends with a short section on available resources for students and a rather simplistic breakdown by stages of an approach to a source, but the heavier section at the beginning is a challenge to all of us who are primarily occupied with texts as our evidence (though the construct, of a historian solely concerned with archive material to the exclusion of archæology or marginal and undocumented populations, may seem like a straw man to medievalists; more on that perspective later). The various papers drink more or less deeply of these methodological concerns but the best ones, in this reviewer’s opinion, are those that manage to bring the methodological dilemmas, questions and potential out of identifiable evidence.

18th-century stomacher from Nether Wallop, Southampton Centre for Textile Conservation TCC2674.1

18th-century stomacher from Nether Wallop, Southampton Centre for Textile Conservation TCC2674.1

The best example of this is perhaps Giorgio Riello‘s explication of an eighteenth-century stomacher.4 The unlikely Rosetta Stone was found in a house in Hampshire, UK, concealed with a waistcoat in the chimney-breast. Riello explains that this practice of hiding clothes or other personal belongings in entry-points to the house is actually not uncommon, but it is almost if not actually undocumented. There is a project in Winchester databasing all such finds (and they have the stomacher on the front page of their website), and basing himself on their work Riello shows how the stomacher can tell several stories and how the historian brings as much to the object as the object to the historian. The most obvious one is that of its concealment, and the beliefs and social practice implied by it; but the garment is also a source for enquiries about textile manufacture (it is almost the earliest British printed linen surviving) and fashion, about images of the body (and more specifically the idealised female body), about bio-dioversity (the whalebone in it is from a previously-unrecorded subspecies of the North Atlantic [right] whale, a species previously thought not to have any subspecies) and about commodification (it had been cut down from a corset and heavily re-used) and the transition to capitalism. When I add that the article goes from there to Chinese pottery found in Williamsburg Virginia and finishes with flying machines that never were, you can see that it covers a lot of ground, and never without losing the point of explaining to the reader what these things can tell us that, perhaps, other evidence could not.

William Samuel Hensons Ærial Steam Carriage depicted in flight over Egypt

William Samuel Henson's Ærial Steam Carriage depicted in flight over Egypt

For this writer Riello’s article is the star of the volume, but the others can be separated as, firstly, those which take particular sorts of evidence: Marina Moskowitz with landscape (which involves the junction between manmade and natural and opens not just the category of material culture but the timespan over which objects, so often used as snapshots of a culture or merely as illustrations, out a great deal); Beverly Lemire illustrating underside aspects of colonialism through dress; Anne Laurence on architecture of the stately home in Britain and Ireland; Helen Berry using Beilby glassware to pull the industrial north-east forward in the London- (and, I would add, Birmingham-)led historiography of the Industrial of Consumer Revolution; and Sara Pennell on cookware as a source for social prescription for women in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.5 Perhaps more powerful are the essays that instead take a theme and develop it around several different sorts of object; this approach is distinguished from the other as ‘object-driven’ rather than ‘object-centred’ by Harvey in the introduction, indeed.6 It is epitomised by, as well as Riello’s paper already mentioned, Karin Dannehl explaining how object biographies and object life cycles can be used as complementary methodological frameworks since the two approaches distinguish themselves by approaching the object for what is unique about it and for what is generic; by Frank Dikötter writing of the uptake of foreign culture in modern China and the agency involved in its adaptation to Eastern and entirely novel uses; and by Glenn Adamson asking, apropos of an eighteenth-century footstool, what we can deduce from an object that does not appear to exist where we would expect it.7 Adamson’s conclusion, that the British distinguished themselves from their contemporary French opponents by not just politics but also by their sitting posture, is surprising but hard to challenge from his evidence, which nicely illustrates the power of the medium to bring up aspects of social history that could not otherwise be reached.

Silver dinar of al-Hakam I (796-822), Emir of Córdoba, al-Andalus mint, 812-13, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.IS.250-R

Silver dinar of al-Hakam I (796-822), Emir of Córdoba, al-Andalus mint, 812-13, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.IS.250-R

In what is a pleasantly slim and economical volume some omissions are inevitable, but two in particular struck this reader, the noting of which is not intended to diminish the great value of what has been included. In particular, the fact that certain sorts of object have not been addressed can hardly be held against the editor however important the reviewer may think they are. However, to a medievalist the chronological bias of the volume towards the Industrial Revolution is inescapable, albeit partly explained by Harvey’s account of the development of field out of the history of consumption, which is inevitably tied up with the development of consumerism.8 All the same, it would have been salutary to have had one paper from a period where archival sources are rare enough that historians have been embracing alternative sources for a while, not even necessarily the Middle Ages: Antiquity or even prehistory would have done. The conscious distinction of this field of enquiry from archaeology (seen by the authors as focussed on typology and chronology in the same way as history is seen rooted in the archive) may not help the breadth of the approaches here, and Harvey’s initial premise of inherent interdisciplinarity is somewhat belied by such careful definition of the boundaries of the field in question.9 As it is only Lemire and Riello venture as far back as early early modern, and Dikötter and Moskowitz surprise rather more by being the prinicipal contributors to come as far forward as the twentieth century. Dikötter is also notable for being the only person included working on a non-Western area, and even here his approach is to ask how the West impacted China. While, therefore, this book is easily the best of several now available for its purpose of waking up students to the possibilities of objects as sources for the historian, the reviewer feels that another and quite different one could also be written, and perhaps should be, to stand on the shelf next to it in the right-thinking historian’s library.


1. Karen Harvey (ed.), History and Material Culture: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources, Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources (London 2009).

2. Also published in the series: Miriam Dobson & Benjamin Ziemann (edd.), Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from 19th and 20th Century History (London 2008), and Sarah Barber & Corinna Peniston-Bird (edd.), History Beyond the Text: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources (London 2008).

3. Karen Harvey, “Introduction: practical matters” in eadem, History and Material Culture, pp. 1-23.

4. Giorgio Riello, “Things that Shape History: material culture and historical narratives”, ibid. pp. 24-46, at pp. 26-32.

5. Marina Moskowitz, “Back Yards and Beyond: landscapes and history”, ibid. pp. 67-84; Beverly Lemire, “Draping the body and dressing the home. The material culture of textiles and clothes in the Atlantic world, c. 1500–1800″, ibid. pp. 85-102; Anne Laurence, “Using buildings to understand social history: Britain and Ireland in the seventeenth century”, ibid., pp. 103-122; Helen Berry, “Regional Identity and Material Culture”, ibid. pp. 139-157; Sara Pennell, “Mundane materiality, or, should small things still be forgotten? Material culture, micro-history and the problem of scale”, ibid. pp. 173-191.

6. Harvey, “Introduction”, pp. 2-3.

7. Karin Dannehl, “Object biographies. From production to consumption” in Harvey, History and Material Culture, pp. 123-138; Frank Dikötter, “Objects and agency. Material culture and modernity in China”, ibid. pp. 158-172; Glenn Adamson, “The case of the missing footstool. Reading the absent object”, ibid., pp. 192-207.

8. Harvey, “Introduction”, pp. 8-9.

9. Ibid. pp. 3 & 6-8, esp. p. 8 where: “While a discipline may have a core, it will also feature variety, interdisciplinarity and areas of work that are in some tension with one another. When scholars work on material culture, the variety within disciplines – and also the connections between them – becomes [sic] plain” but also there: “All the contributors to this volume are historians.”

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2 responses to “History and Material Culture (book review)

  1. Pingback: History and Material Culture (book review) « A Corner of Tenth … « Culture Blog

  2. Thanks for this, Jon. Our school is in the process of implementing a MA in “Public Humanities and Material Culture” — a possibly rich and interesting subject with which I’m not too familiar. This’ll help!

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